On taking the long view

In the long run we are all dead.

John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)

How long is the long run? At one extreme, there is a principle attributed (perhaps wrongly) to the Iroquois that decisions should be taken in the light of their possible effect seven generations hence, which is at least two hundred years; at the other, the corporate mindset, driven by financial results and ultimately by investors, which considers six months to be pretty long-term and five years to be the realm of prophecy.

Economists argue, plausibly, that the future is uncertain, which is true up to a point, but only up to a point. If I push my coffee-mug off the table, it will fall to the floor, although it may or may not break. The connection between levels of atmospheric CO2 and global temperatures was published science back in 1896. The exact amount of the stuff we can put into the climate system without rendering the planet uninhabitable is as yet undetermined; apparently we will discover it experimentally.

We are led to believe that our species, the self-styled “wise man” Homo sapiens, is uniquely endowed with the power of forethought. The evidence, however, hardly bears this out. Plenty of other species, whose intelligence we fiercely deny, seem to be able to live without completely destroying their environment. They modify it, to be sure – termites, moles and beavers all do so in various ways – but the changes they make are harmless and indeed in many ways beneficial.

Perhaps we are so reluctant to allow intelligence to these other creatures because they make us look so stupid in comparison. The failure of squirrels to dig up all of their buried acorns we attribute to lack of memory, rather than a natural desire on their part to propagate oak-trees. When you look at the results, frankly, the squirrels’ mental processes are beside the point. No beaver would ever have built such a monstrosity as the Three Gorges Dam, even it it were possible.

Of course immense amounts of planning and calculation went into the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, but very little thought seems to have been given to the future consequences of building it. The same can be said of the plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport at a time when (1) we are supposed to be cutting back on CO2 emissions, to which air travel is a major contributor, (2) aviation fuel is likely to get increasingly more expensive, and (3) many fewer people wish to fly during a pandemic.

The only consequences anyone seems to worry about are financial. Whenever a corporation is caught behaving recklessly, the defence usually takes the form of claiming that nobody could possibly have foreseen that the awful consequence du jour would result from their actions. Since corporations are treated nowadays more or less as sacred persons, they generally get away with this, however obvious the awful consequence clearly was.

For example: who could possibly have foreseen that prescribing opiates – a notoriously addictive family of drugs – to large number of people might result in widespread addiction? Evidently not Purdue Pharma, whose flagship product OxyContin is apparently still available despite the company having declared bankruptcy after pleading guilty to criminal charges. The settlement was for $8bn, compared with around $35bn in revenue that Purdue garnered from the sale of OxyContin since its launch in 1995, so financially it was a massive success. The human costs, of course, are a mere externality.

Examples could be multiplied: the insouciance of mining companies about toxic wastes, of the nuclear energy industry about its unimaginably long-lived radioactive by-products, or of fracking companies about the (permanent) poisoning of groundwater in the areas where they operate. Is our ignorance of the future really so profound that we cannot foresee any ill-effects of poisoning the same water that local people are accustomed to drink? Anyone who has seen the documentary Gasland (2010) will recall the footage of people actually setting light to the fluid coming from their tap. Exactly how much research is needed to establish whether or not it’s safe to drink that stuff?

Closer to home, British Telecom are planning to do away with landlines by the end of 2025. This will make your phone dependent on mains electricity, as opposed to the current system where the phone line also supplies power. Thus if your power is cut off, for example in a storm, and you don’t happen to have a (charged) mobile phone (and coverage), you won’t be able to tell the power company or indeed contact the emergency services. There are also implications for such things as burglar alarms, fire alarms and traffic lights, which will also stop working the moment mains power goes down. BT’s excuse is that it would be too expensive to fix the existing infrastructure – which of course they haven’t been maintaining adequately, presumably on the off-chance that it would miraculously go on working forever.

If the people doing these things genuinely have no knowledge of the consequences – which I very much doubt – then they have no business being in charge of anything, let alone a major industrial enterprise. Frankly, they should be locked up for their own safety as well as that of others. Presumably they also park without applying the handbrake, or indeed locking the car. It’s an open question whether they put any clothes on before leaving the house.

Presumably the truth is that they do know and they don’t care. They are completely insulated from the bad outcomes of their decisions, just as the Sackler family are protected in perpetuity from fallout from the Purdue Pharma debacle. Except, of course, ultimately this is a delusion. Even billionaires need to eat, which is going to be a tricky proposition without topsoil. They also need breathable air, drinkable water and a living space which isn’t underwater. If the forthcoming shortages of these commodities are simply dismissed as part of an unknowable future, they will become part of an uninhabitable present.

It is revealing that the insurance industry, which depends on making accurate assessments of the future, is one of the few parts of out establishment expressing concern about climate change – for example in this report. Nobody else, apparently, is really bothered, except in so far as it can be made into a money-making vehicle.

The seven-generation standard may be an unreachable ideal, but we aren’t even aiming for a one-generation view. Anyone with children is already invested that far ahead, or so you would think. There is a saying that you plant a walnut tree for your grandchildren; the squirrels would seem to be thinking much further ahead than that.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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